Special education staff in Seattle Public Schools are being shuffled around this fall to meet the needs of students with disabilities and because of enrollment drops — shifts that were greeted with dismay by about 100 parents and educators who protested before the start of a school board meeting Wednesday.
No one is losing their job, but special education teachers and instructional aides are being placed in other positions. It’s a move the district typically makes every October in response to changes in enrollment.
Third grader Mecca Edgecombe is losing one of her teachers soon.
“She’s my favorite teacher,” said the 8-year-old, who goes to Highland Park Elementary School in south Seattle. “I don’t want her to leave and I think they (Seattle Public Schools) made a very bad choice.” Edgecombe said she was upset by the decision, and some of her classmates were crying.
District officials said in a statement they recognized that “educational staff moves can be disruptive to students, families, staff, and the school community. For this reason, SPS will provide support throughout the transition. These staffing adjustments are made with the singular focus on addressing the unmet needs of students with IEPs (Individualized Education Program).”
Wednesday’s rally outside of the board meeting was organized by the Seattle Special Education PTSA and the Seattle Education Association, which says between 40 and 50 schools are affected by the staffing shuffle.
“They (students in special education classes) deserve support when they’re moving through a system that is not built for them, and taking that away is kind of guaranteeing the failure of students that SPS likes to say they support that are furthest away from educational justice” said Tess Bath, an instructional aide at Highland Park.
Edgecombe’s mother, Tiffany Roberts, said it’s “like my kid is going through a breakup at 8-years-old.” Her daughter is in the Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, program at Highland, a special education program that focuses on kids who need extra support with behavioral, social and emotional issues. The program teaches them how to show empathy, develop supportive relationships, manage their emotions and develop healthy identities.
Seattle Schools has 74 full-time special education staff, district officials said, more than is required to meet student needs. But in some classrooms, students with IEPs are experiencing an “unacceptable” student-to-teacher ratio, some as high as 54 students to 1 teacher. That’s why the moves are necessary, SPS officials said.
“SPS’s staffing adjustments recognize the need to reallocate resources to better serve student needs,” the statement said.
Highland Park is losing one teacher and two instructional aides, which will create a ripple effect in the school, said math and science teacher Brianna Armes. Students in special education programs like SEL won’t be able to spend as much time in general education classrooms.
“Our goal is to have them spend as much time in the classroom for inclusion and to help them build these skills,” said Armes, who had a couple SEL students in her class. “If we’re losing staff there’s not going to be people there to help monitor and support them.
Occasionally students will have behavior issues and need to be moved out of the classroom, Armes said, and that’s when instructional aides step in so the other students can continue to learn.
“They’re a huge part of what is possible to have SEL kids in our (general education) classrooms,” said Highland park teacher Girard Montejo.
Kindergarten through fifth grade students in special education classes will all have to be in the same class at Highland Park, a 20-year special education teacher Lesley Teem said. She said developmentally that is “so inappropriate.”
“To have a kindergartner and a fifth grader who have social emotional needs in the same program — while numbers wise it makes sense, support wise and investment wise it doesn’t,” Teem said.
SEL and students in other special education classes have made so much progress because they have the staffing at Highland Park, Armes said.
“It’s like people who stop taking antibiotics because they feel better even though the doctor says finish the course,” Armes said. “It’s like, ‘Hey they’re doing better so we can cut this.’ No, they’re doing better because we have this.”